Jake Paltrow's post-apocalyptic Western will dazzle you with style, underwhelm you with melodrama.
A tragic tale of a farmer, his children, a swindler, and a robot donkey…thing, Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones is a unique film that’ll make you smile with its inventive mixture of sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and western milieus, though its characters and their melodramatic lives aren’t quite as compelling. You get the sense that Paltrow really opened his creative floodgates and poured all of the things he geeks out about onto the screen, from anime to Bergman to John Ford, a beautiful approach more filmmakers would be smart to adopt, quite frankly. Had there just been a little more discipline in the writing, the film would have been a more noteworthy work, though cult status could very well be in Young Ones‘ future.
The film is set sometime in the near future where the earth has balanced our leaps forward in technology with a crippling drought that’s rendered much of the world a veritable wasteland where starving nomads kill for jugs of water. Though the setting isn’t technically post-apocalyptic (there are thriving, lit-up cities dotting the arid landscape) our story (mostly) operates within the post-apocalyptic rubric. Top-billed star Michael Shannon plays Earnest Holm, who raises his children Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Mary (Elle Fanning) on a farm that’s barely fit to keep them alive and fed, let alone turn a profit. Their mouths and wallets are parched, and the’ve just lost the family donkey, which they used to transport bottles of booze Earnest brews and sells to keep the family afloat.
It’s dark days for the Holm family, not just because they’re scraping by, but because they’re a house divided. Earnest has a strong bond with Jerome, who soaks up his dad’s life lessons like a sponge, but Mary is staunchly defiant, her disdain for her father stemming from his sordid past. Years ago, Earnest got drunk and crashed his car, paralyzing Mary and Jerome’s mother (Aimee Mullins), who can now only walk with the assistance of a bionic spine and lives at a rehabilitation center. Though Earnest has a reputation as a good man, all Mary sees is the drunk who tore their family apart. To Earnest’s chagrin, Mary dates a handsome, motorcycle-riding scoundrel named Flem (Nicholas Hoult), who through small deceptions weasels his way into the Holm family and threatens to take everything Earnest has worked so hard to protect.
Had the film been made to stand solely on its narrative legs it would topple over in a quick minute. Though the backstabbing, secrets, and underhanded maneuvering harkens back to old-school Western melodramas, the story feels more rudimentary than classic. What gives Young Ones its real value is its style, which has cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capturing the cruel beauty of the outstretched, dry landscapes. Special effects are used sparingly and tastefully, with the Holms’ replacement for their donkey, a load-carrying robot with four long metal legs, being the most pervading visual flourish. It’s genuinely difficult to discern shot to shot whether the robot is physically there or rendered by computers (when you think it’s CGI, someone will place their hand on it), which is makes it the best kind of visual trick.
The four-legged hunk of metal is also surprisingly one of the film’s key characters. It plays an important role in the film’s most pivotal scene, but there’s more to it than that. Much like the titular donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the robot has no inner thoughts to speak of, and is there only as an innocent, silent witness to the evils of human nature. There’s an inherent sympathy that comes with its dog-like appearance and mannerisms, especially as we see its legs buckle as it’s kicked and beaten by its owners. But unlike Balthazar, the robot gets a measure of revenge on its prime abuser (its built-in, always-on camera comes into play), though to say a thoughtless work-bot is capable of vengeance is a bit of a stretch. We may project the revenge storyline ourselves, but it’s no less satisfying.
The performances are generally very good, with Shannon anchoring the film with his stripped-down, nuanced turn as the Holms’ patriarch. He plays the gun-toting former drunk like a dormant volcano that could erupt at any moment, and while he isn’t afraid to take a life for his family (a toughness we see on full display in the film’s grisly opening moments), he also has a tender rapport with the scrappy Jerome. Smit-Mcphee, who’s subtle yet deceptively emotive, has great chemistry with Hoult, who’s a great villain despite being known to play more likable characters very well. Fanning is a fine young actress, but she isn’t done justice with the role of Mary, who feels one-dimensional and slightly objectified.
What’s most enjoyable and impressive about Paltrow’s sophomore effort is how well he blends his homages to other films into a cohesive vision. From on-screen titles dividing the film into three chapters; to the actors posing in front of a curtain and looking straight into the camera for the closing credits; to the brief glimpse of a futuristic city that recalls the kookier side of mainstream sci-fi, we see countless influences, old-fashioned and contemporary, and they’re all a treat for the eyes and ears. If the characters’ journeys were as innovative as the aesthetics, Paltrow would have had a career-defining masterpiece on his hands.